“What sign do you give, O Swan, with your curving neck
when the sad and wandering dreamers pass?
Why so silent from being white and being beautiful,
tyrannical to the waters and impassive to the flowers?”
Ruben Dario (1867 – 1916) was a poet of tenacious drive and discerning passions, the founder and foremost advocate of a vital artistic and intellectual movement. It was called modernismo, and it had a tremendous impact on the Spanish-speaking world and beyond, though today it often evades popular awareness. Coalescing around the turn of the twentieth century, it was a literature that blended influences of Romanticism and Symbolism, and concerned itself deliberately with emotional intensity, individuality and creative freedom. Dario himself was the embodiment of these ideals – a poet of vibrancy and dreamlike urgency, an artisan of words both tactile and hypnogogic. As seen in the stanza above, he had a special fondness for the symbolism of swans, and would often juxtapose their beauty with sadness and death, giving them a mystical status that recalls the Romantic and classical. It’s an example of what made Ruben Dario the champion of Spanish poetry in the early modern era. His modernismo style was impassioned but classically melodic, radically exploratory while revering the legacies of the past.
Dario was a cosmopolitan man, a product of a growing sense of global connectivity. He absorbed all of the influences of the literary scene abroad along with the experiences of his travels, yet his poetry reflects a singularly beautiful insight. His sensibility is well-illustrated in the opening line of one of his most celebrated poems, a piece which has retrospectively become the standard of the movement:
“I seek a form that my style cannot discover,
a bud of thought that wants to be a rose.” (Dario 60)
As Octavio Paz notes in his prologue to Dario’s Selected Poems – this particular line “is a definition of his verse… He seeks a beauty that is beyond beauty, that words can evoke but can never state. All of Romanticism – the desire to grasp the infinite – and all of Symbolism – an ideal, indefinable beauty that can only be suggested – are contained in that line.” (Dario 14) But even as we dissect the influences of Dario’s poetry, there remains that abstract, indefinable “something else” which makes it inarguably his, penetrating and sublime.
When Ruben Dario first pursued the writer’s craft, his efforts were suppressed by the reactionary government of his native Nicaragua. At the tender age of fifteen, he tried to obtain a scholarship to pursue the literary arts in Europe. He read some poems to the authorities, who immediately denied his request, fearing that exposure to European culture would only breed further liberalism in the young man. Dario’s restless artistry led him to leave Nicaragua on his own and begin a new life, traveling all over Latin and South America, writing poetry and forging relationships. He soon found himself quite successful, receiving official recognition all over the Latin world, where before as a youth he had been denied. He was appointed consulate in Colombia and the ambassador for Nicaragua, which would later rename his home town of Metapa to Ciudad Dario, in his honor. As his fame grew, he eventually did make his way to Europe. Spain welcomed him as a diplomat and as the most celebrated artist of the New World. From there he was drawn naturally to Paris, the epicenter of art and poetry, where he came under the spell of the French symbolists. This was a defining moment, both for Dario and for the movement he was leading. From then onward, Dario’s poetry would become increasingly complex, dreamy and profound.
The modernismo movement was giving a new voice to Spanish artists while socially and politically redefining Latin America. While Dario was recognized as the movement’s head, the movement as a whole grew from a scattered network of poets looking to redefine the art of their language. They were examining themselves and also looking to France for artistic queues: Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine top the list of influences. These influences informed much of the structure and tone of modernism, but it was the singular Spanish sensibility, the natural rhythm and fire, which gave the poetry its power. Modernismo is said to have “officially” begun with Dario’s first manifestos, and with the international publication of Azul (Blue), his first collection of poems and stories. The poetry of “Azul” is at once familiar, and breathtakingly new:
“Month of roses. My poems
wander through the vast forest
to gather honey and fragrance
from the half-opened flowers.” (Dario 41)
There is a clear Romantic sentiment here, but there is also a uniquely sensual flavor. And Dario was every bit a sensualist; a man of deep feeling and endless curiosity. Gerald Brenan calls his verse, perhaps a bit disparagingly, “hedonistic, pagan and steeped in a violently sensual and erotic atmosphere.” (Brenan 428) This is where the “modern” in modernismo shines through. Such unabashed liberty of expression was something novel to Spanish literature, and though there were many disagreeable reactions from traditionalists, the fresh air was largely welcome to the younger generation.
Octavio Paz dubbed Dario “the bridge” between these old and new spheres of Spanish verse. “His constant travels and his generous activity in behalf of others made him the point of connection”, notes Paz in his prologue. (Dario 11) Poets rallied around Dario for inspiration and leadership, and he in turn led them to reinvent not only Spanish literature, but the language itself. Between the end of the “golden era” of Spanish literature in the seventeenth century, and the beginnings of modernismo in the late nineteenth, Spanish had stagnated. During the conservative Napoleonic age, literature and poetry (a largely liberal endeavor) had utterly ceased. The language was largely stuck in the baroque. There were some achievements in the Romantic period, notably from Gustavo Be’cquer (an influence on Dario’s early work), but nothing as profound as that in England, Germany or France. And then Dario and his modernists came along, and breathed new life into the Spanish language. Through them, Spanish verse regained its vitality, became once again a viable and effective literary force.
As we see, the effect of modernismo was monumental, and it spread beyond poetry. It gave a powerful voice to Latin American communities who were feeling the pressure of outside forces, particularly those of American imperialism. Ruben Dario was not a particularly political artist, but even he could not keep his pen still about the problems facing Central America. As a journalist for a paper in Argentina, he covered the Spanish-American War, illuminating the struggle of Hispanic cultures. And when U.S. President Roosevelt began to strategically foment the Panamanian revolution in 1903 (with the goal of acquiring the valuable Canal Zone for America), Dario called him out in verse:
“You think that life is a conflagration,
that progress is an eruption,
that where you put your bullet
you set the future…
…Beware. Spanish America lives!” (Longman 836)
The acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone and the building of the canal was of course a major component of America’s growing global influence. It gave the U.S. tremendous economic and military power at the expense of much bloodshed and upheaval, and the Latin American people would not soon forget the manipulative self-interest of the U.S. Poetry was at least one way in which they could vocalize their grievances, though the Canal Zone would continue to be a violently contested issue for most of the twentieth century.
Along with its importance in the historical context of its time, Ruben Dario’s modernismo was a surge of energy for all Spanish literary arts to come. As Brenan notes, regarding the publication of Dario’s most innovative volume Prosas Profanas, “These new, intoxicating rhythms and cadences burst the narrow banks in which Spanish poetry had long been confined.” (Brenan 428) The eruptive effects of Dario’s verse make it a vital subject of study for world literature, while the verses themselves continue to enthrall generations with their deep emotion and magical imagery, their profound and unequivocal artistry. Federico Garcia Lorca says it best, in this excerpt from a speech given in Dario’s honor in 1933:
“He gave us the murmur of the forest in an adjective, and being a master of language… he made zodiacal signs out of a lemon tree, the hoof of a stag, and mollusks full of terror and infinity. He launched us on a sea with frigates and shadows in our eyes, and built an enormous promenade of gin over the grayest afternoon the sky has ever known, and greeted the southwest wind as a friend…” (Dario 140)
- The Longman Anthology of World Literature. Damrosch, David, and Pike, David L., eds. Pearson, 2009
- Selected Poems of Ruben Dario. Dario, Ruben. Lysander Kemp, trans. University of Texas Press, 1965
- The Literature of the Spanish People: From Roman Times to the Present Day. Brenan, Gerald. Cambridge University Press, 1976